A thirst for Justice

10 March 2016

3:00 PM

10 March 2016

3:00 PM

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, a great common lawyer, was an adornment to the American Supreme Court. His wisdom is still cited in common-law jurisdictions throughout the world. Any English lawyer who would prefer to exchange Holmes’s incisive rulings — which usually amount to common sense elevated to a Platonic idea — for some European mush based on supposed human rights, reveals himself as a legal numbskull who so hates his own country that he cannot bear its successes, not least of which is the principle of freedom under the rule of law.

Holmes’s long life was a chronicle of American evolution. He would have been entitled to call his memoirs ‘The history of the United States in my own times’. At the beginning of the Civil War he joined the Union army. Shortly afterwards, as a young officer, he was stationed on the northern bank of the Potomac helping to man the ramparts. A tall man appeared, insouciant of Confederate snipers across the river. ‘Keep down, you fool,’ cried Holmes. The long fellow did, and as he passed said: ‘Thank you, Lieutenant.’ It was President Lincoln.

About 70 years later, another president came across Holmes reading Plato’s Republic in the original. ‘Why are you reading Plato in Greek, Justice Holmes?’ enquired Franklin Roosevelt. ‘To improve my mind, Mr President.’

Holmes’s legal aphorisms were equally pithy. It was he who declared, in a debate about freedom of speech, that no one was entitled to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. He also stated that a man was entitled to swing his arm with its fist as vigorously as he chose, as long as it did not come into contact with another man’s nose.

But I was citing the formidable Judge in a wholly un-legal context. When he was about 90, and conversing with another ancient Justice — let us call him Smith — a girl law clerk sashayed past, with a double ration of the Platonic idea of youthful glory: a -lovely face and a pert bottom. ‘Ah, Smith,’ nostalgised Holmes, ‘to be 70 again.’

A group of us, still young enough to dread the onset of 70, still on the ‘anec’ side of dotage, were sitting around a dining table, finishing some good -bottles with port to come, and remembering the dinner parties — or more accurately scoffing evenings — of our youth; around a kitchen table, over a great vat of spag blog and a large -supply of plonk. In those days, everyone brought at least one bottle, none of which had any pretension to quality, all of which were drunk.

As years passed and we all moved beyond student mores, questions of wine etiquette arose. Some felt able to buy wine not for immediate consumption, to offer more sophisticated menus and to construct a wine strategy which did not depend on the arrival of armfuls of cheerful litres. There would be occasional cultural clashes. A less advanced friend would proffer a bottle and be miffed when it was not opened. He may have assumed that the host was snaffling it for private consumption, when the host actually regarded it as barely casserole quality.

A lot of reminiscences followed. In the early Eighties, supermarkets were full of ‘Bulgarian’ cabernet sauvignon, good value at a quaffing price. A number of my friends adopted it as their table wine. Then supplies dried up. It may be that the Cape vineyards had found other outlets — or perhaps the Bulgarians had become fed up with marketing South African wine as theirs. But even at that time, most of us were moving from quantity to quality, along the primrose paths of dalliance from vin ordinaire to grand cru classe. Everyone had a story about the transformative power of a great bottle. Mine concerned the deputy editor of this magazine, now a blissful new mother — unto us, a son is born. I recall her delight in a bottle of ’88 Calon-Segur. We ought to find her something similar, to fortify the milk.

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